Maria Garcia, Citizen

After work, ESL students go back to school



The students are from El Salvador, Afghanistan, Chile, Mexico, Indonesia, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic. They are mostly women and mostly young, although there are several middle-aged couples and one tiny baby. The classroom door is closed but you can still hear bangs and shouts in the hallway of the Jefferson Project community center and occasionally a small face peeks in to check on his or her mom. Inside, the parents are discussing how to help their children deal with stress.

"What are some things that cause stress and anxiety for children?" Mary Ann Hytken writes the words on her portable whiteboard. Hytken is tall with long gray hair and a fondness for bright scarves. A graduate of Humboldt State University's English Language Institute, she taught English as a second language in Southern California, the Bay Area, Tanzania and at College of the Redwoods before starting English Express in June of 2016. English Express is grant-funded and free to all students, offering classes in Eureka, Fortuna and Redway. Hytken calls it the most rewarding chapter yet in her career as an educator.

To explain the concepts of stress and anxiety, Hytken and two volunteer assistants use a variety of teaching tools. The majority of students speak Spanish, so the words translate easily. For the students who don't speak Spanish, Hytken describes the feelings around stress and anxiety, how they feel in the body. The students range from their early 20s to their mid-60s. Some have been in the country for decades, some only a few weeks. Some barely speak English, others are almost fluent. They translate the sentence to one another, exchange questions, encourage one another. A young pregnant woman from the Dominican Republic puts a hand on her stomach in contemplation. Slowly, words begin to fill the whiteboard.

"School," suggests an older man from Indonesia. There's agreement.

"Good," says Hytken. "What else?"

"Cell phones," shouts a woman. More murmurs of agreement.

Some of the suggestions would be familiar to any parent: family problems, TV, friends, homework. Others have extra resonance for families that may have language barriers or mixed immigration statuses: bullying and family separation.

The parents agree, helping their children make sense of what they hear in the news or from other kids at school can be tough.

A woman from El Salvador describes her 8-year-old grandson coming to her crying after school, asking if she would be deported.

"No, not me papi," she told him.

Many of the students come to class after working all day, some at two jobs. Hytken strives to use a full-body teaching techniques and often includes physical activities, such as hitting a ball with a paddleboard, breathing and singing, to get the stress out. After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, she began integrating more discussion of feelings and inviting guests from the Department of Health and Human Services to present about resources that might help address stress and trauma.

"When they talk about it, they talk about their children first," says Hytken, referring to the constant specter of deportation that now hovers around the extended families of many of her students.

In the Eureka class, after discussing stress and its impact on the body and learning ability, Hytken puts the students in groups to read from a pamphlet from the Sesame Street Workshop. The students read aloud to one another about the value of proper nutrition, dancing and physical activity. Everyone participates in a "belly breathing" exercise and discusses how to practice it with their children. Then they do a memory game, competing amiably as they flip over cards with illustrations of Elmo and Big Bird. The game, Hytken says, is a way to get their minds off stressors in their lives.

Among the students in the Eureka class are Agustin Cruz and Elvira Rojas, a couple originally from Mexico who Hytken says are among the "most committed" students in her group. They studied with Hytken when she taught at College of the Redwoods and followed when she left to branch out on her own. Switching from an academic setting to a grant-funded one, where her students can have fun, go on field trips and not worry about taking tests to measure their competency, has made a world of difference, Hytken says. Her students are learning practical English, learning to communicate at work, with their doctors and pharmacists.

"They have enough to worry about without tests," she says.

Cruz and Rojas have been together 22 years, with five years of separation when Cruz first left Mexico for Southern California in 1997. She followed in 2002. They've both worked at the local cannery gutting and filleting fish for more than a decade. It's hard, cold work, they say. Afterward, they come to class. They've been studying with Hytken for four years.

"I want more English to use at work," Rojas says shyly.

Other students in the class want to better understand what's happening at local schools and help their children assimilate. Bullying is a constant worry. A young mother in the English Express Fortuna class said that when she volunteered in her daughter's elementary school class, some students made fun of her for not being able to speak English. Some children also trapped her daughter in the bathroom and made racist remarks. When the parents arrived to discuss the issue, they also said things that were racist, she said.

"So I can't be angry with the child because now I know why she is that way," she told the class in Spanish. Hytken has invited the principal of the school to visit the class later in December.

Bringing special presentations into the class has been a key success in Hytken's effort to help her students better navigate their community. While almost all local agencies have some form of translation services, accessing that service, or finding time to use local resources around onerous work and childcare schedules, can be difficult and intimidating. So English Express has hosted 36 different guests, ranging from motivational speakers to nonprofits like Food for People and Northcoast Children's Services, government agencies such as Child Welfare Services to environmental organizations like Humboldt Baykeeper, Latino Outreach groups like Centro del Pueblo to medical professionals like dentists and pharmacists.

While many in the class were initially shy about asking the guest speakers questions, the students have gradually become more confident. The class assistant, local interpreter Ray Valdivia, often translates for students who feel more comfortable speaking Spanish. When the pharmacist came to present, Hytken said he was peppered with health questions ranging from the mundane to the serious, and he stayed after to consult with students who had not seen or could not see a doctor, giving the best advice he could. Although morale and motivation remain high, Hytken says her students are often in poor health.

"Everyone is tired," she says. "They're eager to improve their socioeconomic status but their health is not so good. They have high levels of stress. A lot of my students need a dentist. Some need major surgeries."

Anecdotally, Hytken says she has heard of undocumented residents going to urgent care, convinced they were having heart attacks, only to be diagnosed as having panic attacks. When Hytken first decided to launch English Express, after having her previous English as a second language class abruptly cancelled by CR, she recruited at local Mexican markets, stationing herself by the counter where workers came to cash their checks. Many people there were seeking teas or other remedies for stress, she says.

"I don't feel safe in my house," a young woman from Mexico City says in the Eureka class. "If there is a problem, I don't know how to get help."

Martha Shanahan, director of community benefits at St. Joseph Hospital, says the class is, broadly, "about improving the community's health."

St. Joseph initially funded English Express, which is also supported by the McLean Foundation, the Multi-Generational Center, the Humboldt Area Foundation, the Rose Perenin Foundation, the Headwaters Fund and private donations. (A student sponsoring campaign is also in the works, so community members can help keep the class free for students.)

"It's a great program," says Shanahan. "It helps people communicate with teachers and make doctor's appointments. It's part of a healthcare continuum, improving access to care. That way a hospital can be used like a fire department — only used when they really need it."

The class also goes on field trips. So far, students have applied for library cards, sampled chocolate at Dick Taylor, toured Clendenen's Cider Works, participated in the Humboldt County Budget Roadshow, attended CPR training, danced at the Redwood Coast Music Festival, hiked Headwaters, sailed aboard the Madaket and toured the Carson Mansion, which Hytken says was a favorite. Carson was reportedly an admirer of Maximilian, a monarch of the Second Mexican Empire, and imported some of the wood used on the interior of the mansion from Mexico. The docent of the tour was impressed with the attentiveness of the group and invited them all to join the Ingomar Club.

The field trips have helped the students improve their confidence and feel more integrated into the community, Hytken says. The spotty state of local public transportation can be a challenge for many who don't have a driver's license or haven't learned to drive. (Hytken teaches a unit on the driving test and may have a guest speaker from the Department of Motor Vehicles.) Students often carpool or walk.

"We're like a family now," says Hytken. "We eat together, go to weddings and quinceaneras together."

And while Hytken doesn't use exams to measure her students' progress, many are studying for a very important test, the one that will grant them citizenship. Elizabeth Niemeyer, another former ESL teacher, launched a free class in September to help locals prepare for their naturalization interviews and understand their rights as U.S. citizens. She shares many students with Hytken.

"I retired and then Trump became president," she told the Journal in a phone interview. "I said to myself, 'Self, what can I do? I can teach. What can I teach? Citizenship.'"

Niemeyer says Hytken was a mentor to her. Like English Express, her class, Towards Citizenship, relies on a patchwork of grant funding. The class meets once a week in Fortuna and Eureka, with free childcare provided. So far Niemeyer has worked with 20 students, helping them answer the 100 questions that appear on the naturalization test, questions like "What did the Declaration of Independence do?" and "What happened at the Constitutional Convention?"

Conversation about civics and history can get lively, says Niemeyer. The citizenship test includes questions about the flag, slavery and the Mexican-American War. The idea of what makes someone a "good citizen" has gained more relevance in the last year. As white supremacists march in places like Charlottesville, espousing the slogan of "blood and soil," Niemeyer's students are learning the principles our nation has agreed make people citizens, regardless of where they were born, how they look or what language they speak.

"One of the things we do talk about is when they were fighting in the revolution, it was against these Old World ideas," says Niemeyer. "Monarchies where people didn't have any say. When they made this revolution, the government they tried to form was a completely new kind of government. And the students get that."

The citizenship process can be onerous and expensive, costing up to $720. Niemeyer says she has students who are ready to take it but can't afford to just yet or don't have transportation lined up for the three separate trips south: one to Santa Rosa to get fingerprinted, another to San Francisco for the test and a third again to San Francisco for the ceremony.

Yuridia Vargas, a mother of five kids and grandmother of one, says she's ready to take her test after 25 years in the United States but is waiting for some health problems to resolve before paying the application fee. She spends two hours every night studying and fine-tuning her application.

"Citizenship class is important because I want to vote," she wrote in a testimonial for the Towards Citizenship class. "I want to have my voice heard."

Two other students of Niemeyer's, Pedro and Bertha Sanchez, recently returned from submitting their fingerprints. Now they wait for their exam date and study with Niemeyer. The couple has lived in Humboldt County for more than 30 years. Passing the test, many hear, can come down to the luck of the draw, depending on which examiner one gets. Applicants 50 or older who have lived as permanent residents in the United States for more than 20 years qualify for an interpreter but, for others, good English is important.One man passed the exam but didn't understand the word "oath" when asked to raise his right hand for the ceremony, Niemeyer says. He was rejected. Some students pass the written test but get tripped up with the "chit-chat" section, where they're expected to answer questions during an informal interview.

Maria Garcia Arteaga, a student of both Hytken and Niemeyer's, became a U.S. citizen in October.

Originally from El Salvador, Arreaga has lived in Humboldt County for 26 years.

"For the first two years, it was too cold but now I like the rain," she says, laughing. She also used to work in the fish cannery. "When I came to Eureka, I didn't understand. My supervisor said, 'Follow me,' and I stayed. She said, 'Stay,' and I followed her. She was laughing but she said, 'You will learn English.' Every day she would write on the board and I would read it."

Arteaga studied with Hytken when she taught at CR and followed her to the Jefferson Center. She now mentors other students in the classes, helping new arrivals integrate and feel welcome. Hytken and others call her, affectionately, "Maria Garcia." She says she hopes to one day earn a degree. At her citizenship ceremony, she was given a small American flag and a band played "This Land is Your Land." For Arteaga, the ceremony was extra sweet because she had set and met one more challenge. Although she was offered an interpreter, she insisted on taking the test in English.

"To pass my exam in English," she says, "it was an accomplishment."

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.

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